Inside Scientology's Rehab Racket

By Mark Ebner, Walter Armstrong 03/27/11

Narconon promises desperate addicts that they can sweat out their demons (and gobs of green ooze) by spending hours in sweltering saunas. But is it a real rehab? Or a front trying to lure vulnerable converts to a declining cult?

The Narconon Way: No meds, hours in 150-degree saunas and dangerous
doses of vitamins.

L. Ron Hubbard, the prolific science fiction author and founder of the Church of Scientology, may have been judged “a mental case” (according to the F.B.I.) and “a pathological liar” (according to a Los Angeles Supreme Court judge), but to tens of thousands of his eager followers worldwide, the man discovered an approach to recovery that outclasses everything on offer from mainstream addiction science. Narconon is the spawn of Hubbard’s pseudos-cientific notions, a detox-and-rehab enterprise that has, over more than four decades, grown into a multimillion-dollar empire that currently comprises an estimated several dozen clinics encircling the globe. Its claims of unrivaled success rates with its “100 percent natural,” “drug free” approach have kept it profitable and respectable, even as the church’s reputation has tanked. Celebrity endorsements—from the likes of "former graduate" Kirstie Alley—and a savvy internet marketing campaign haven't hurt. 

Yet according to the organization's many critics, including friends and family of dead, damaged, or disappeared Narconon clients, the chain of rehabs is little more than a front group for the Church of Scientology. They allege that unsuspecting clients pay as much as $30,000 for “treatment” consisting of a bizarre detox process that poses serious health hazards, followed by indoctrination in Scientology masked as drug rehabilitation. By preying on people who are desperate and vulnerable—and prime candidates for conversion—Narconon serves as one of the church’s main sources of revenue and recruitment. As the Scientology brand turns increasingly toxic—in a recent New Yorker, Lawrence Wright reported that the F.B.I. is investigating its leadership for allegedly violating human trafficking laws—the church’s survival depends more than ever on Narconon’s hold on the addiction and recovery market. (Efforts by The Fix to contact a Narconon spokesperson for comment by phone and email were not successful.)

L. Ron Hubbard was a strange candidate to emerge as the self-proclaimed scientific leader of one of the world’s largest anti-addiction enterprises. His fondness for illicit substances was well known. Yet aside from his own ingestion of a wide variety of illegal drugs including mescaline, barbiturates, and coke—described in letters written by Hubbard and his son—the exact nature of Hubbard’s “research” into addiction remains obscure. Hubbard claimed to have discovered in 1977 that the residue of L.S.D. and other “toxic” substances lingers in the body’s tissues for months and even years after use; like tiny ticking time bombs, these remnants can explode at any moment, triggering a dangerous craving or disorienting flashback that, in turn, can lead to more drug use.

The Narconon (not to be confused with Narcotics Anonymous, or N.A.) pamphlet “Ten Things Your Friends May Not Know About Drugs” offers a basic account of the science fiction master’s theories of drug addiction. “Most drugs or their by-products get stored in fat within the body and can stay there for years,” it reads. “Even occasional use has long-term effects. This is a problem because later, when the person is working or exercising or has stress, the fat burns up and a tiny amount of the drug seeps back into the blood. This triggers cravings so the person may still want drugs even years after he stopped taking them.”

To detoxify from alcohol and drugs, Hubbard recommended in his “Purification Rundown” that ailing addicts spend four or five hours a day in 150-degree saunas, while ingesting megadoses of vitamins. This sweat-out-the-bad, drink-in-the-good regimen had originally been invented by Hubbard as the first stage in the process of conversion to Scientology and becoming “clear”—free of the negativity of “engrams,” or previous incarnations. The ensuing rehabilitation course consists mainly of “training routines,” or “T.R.s"—a deep dive into Old Father Hubbard’s theory and practice of “communication,” which is a disguised version of Scientology 101.

“By the end of the sauna, you feel like a fresh, newborn baby,” testifies Marc Murphy, the brooding young British singer-songwriter who delivers a testimonial in a promotional video on the official Narconon website, Murphy insists that Narconon’s drug-free approach enabled him to kick a 12-year heroin addiction, compounded by a methadone and Valium habit that he acquired during dozens of previous detox attempts. “It was the easiest withdrawal that I’ve ever done,” the “student” says about his stint at a Narconon rehab outside London. “It saved my life.”

But lives have also been lost. Since Narconon's inception some 40 years ago, dozens of criminal and civil cases have been filed against its rehabs by former patients who claim to have been injured or abused, and by the relatives of people who have allegedly died as a result of bizarre and dangerous practices. “When I was at Narconon, people were taken away in ambulances and had to spend days in the hospital,” said David Love, a client at Narconon Trois-Rivieres—near Montreal—from December 2008 to May 2009, who was interviewed exclusively by The Fix. “People have died in the Quebec facility. The vitamin and sauna treatments are horrible. Patients regularly vomited and had diarrhea. Addicts with substance abuse problems have liver problems and high enzyme counts—they should in no way be taking massive amounts of vitamins like Niacin.”

Like many Narconon graduates, Love, 57, made an effortless transition from client to employee under the influence of his rehab's Scientology-based teachings. During the six months he worked at the clinic, he witnessed at least two hospitalizations: “One client had severe stomach pains and they sent him to his room to spend the whole day moaning and in pain, until he was finally taken to the hospital.” The other patient was a diabetic whose insulin was taken away when he entered the clinic, in keeping with its “drug free” philosophy. “The guy [went into insulin shock] and had to be rushed to the hospital. He was in a coma. They basically had to save his life,” said Love.

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Mark Ebner is an award-winning journalist, a New York Times bestselling author, and a familiar presence in recovery circles. Follow him on Twitter.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.